Big smiles, a hug, and the features of faces that have barely aged. Although two years have passed, only the grey goatee framing Vital Kamerhe’s face serves as a reminder of the time and the trials he has gone through since his last meeting with Félix Tshisekedi.
READ MORE DRC-Rwanda: Félix Tshisekedi's headache
On 28 June, the two men met at the Cité de l’Union Africaine in Kinshasa to demonstrate their close relationship in front of the cameras, as if it had never been on the verge of ending.
For more than two hours, they discussed the current major challenges and “how to meet them”. One could almost have mistakenly thought that it was the president’s chief of staff standing there.
However, five days earlier, before the Court of Appeal of Kinshasa-Gombe had pronounced his acquittal, Kamerhe was still only a defendant. Banned in 2020 from running for president for ten years and sentenced to 20 years in prison – a sentence reduced on appeal to 13 years of detention – for corruption and embezzlement, the leader of the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC) did not see his future brighten until December 2021. He was then released on medical grounds and there are already signs that the courts may grant him leniency.
Return of the lift
This acquittal comes at a good time for the head of state, as the presidential election is due to take place within a year and a half and the possibility of postponing it by a few months is being discussed more and more. While Tshisekedi has publicly announced his intention to run for a second term, Kamerhe has become indispensable to him.
“We have not yet received any formal instructions, but all the signs are pointing in this direction: under Vital’s auspices, our party will support Félix in 2023,” says an elected member of the UNC. “We have no other choice. We know that in exchange for our leader’s acquittal, we need to return the favour. The former prisoner’s name is now being mooted so that he can head the government in the event of a reshuffle or lead the president-candidate’s campaign.”
In return, the Bukavu native will secure some votes in eastern DRC for his ally ahead of the next presidential election. In this region, which has been under a state of siege for over a year and is marked by the M23 rebellion’s recent resurgence, President Tshisekedi’s record is particularly criticised.
“Apart from Vital, only Modeste Bahati Lukwebo [president of the Senate] could have secured him votes in this part of the country. But Bahati is too unpredictable and not reliable enough. Once again, Vital Kamerhe is charged with being the kingmaker,” the UNC politician continued.
Leader of the Union Sacrée, a crumbling majority made up partly of former members of the Kabila camp, barely elected in 2018 and the architect of a criticised record, the Congolese president needs to make sure his alliances are intact. Because more and more political opponents will be facing off against him in the upcoming presidential election.
Influx of candidates
In May, on the strength of the Constitutional Court’s decision to declare itself unable to judge him in heavy embezzlement cases, Augustin Matata Ponyo, Joseph Kabila’s former prime minister, officially entered the race. Martin Fayulu, who continues to claim victory in the 2018 presidential election, has never hidden his intention to run again in 2023 and has been nominated to represent his party. Adolphe Muzito, his ally in the Lamuka coalition, has also made his ambitions known.
The list does not end there. On 18 July, Jean-Marc Kabund a Kabund also officially declared his candidacy. Angered by his disgrace, the former all-powerful interim president of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), the presidential party, created his own party, the Alliance pour le Changement and is already paying the price for this newly declared ambition. He is accused of having made offensive remarks about the head of state and is being prosecuted for contempt.
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There are also candidates who have not yet formally declared their intention to run but who everyone suspects will eventually, starting with Moïse Katumbi.
“He has made up his mind, he’s going to,” says one of his regular visitors. “With Moïse, it doesn’t look good,” says a leader of the presidential party.
Although his party, Ensemble pour la République, is still a member of the presidential coalition, the president now considers the former governor of Katanga to be an opponent.
“Moïse is convinced that he can win. He regularly underlines Félix Tshiseksedi’s lack of popularity, and the possibility of an ‘all but Tshisekedi’ vote,” adds our interviewee.
Even though Kabila’s Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie has not yet designated a candidate, it promises to be present in the battle.
“Serenity” in the presidential camp
In short, there has been an influx of contenders, which differs from 2018 when there were only three ‘big candidates’ – the others had publicly withdrawn or were leading smaller formations.
“We are serene,” said one of the leaders of the UDPS, who stressed that the increased number of candidates benefits the former president. “The more they are against us, the more the opposition votes are scattered, and the more likely we are to be far ahead,” he says.
While the president has abandoned his promise to reform the voting system by introducing a two-round presidential election, collecting only 30% to 35% of the vote would allow him to win the election.
In this game of speculation, some have even gone so far as to mention a “tactical” candidacy of Jean-Pierre Bemba. “Felix could encourage his ally to run. On the one hand, the latter would still take some votes from the opposition. On the other hand, if he got a decent score, he would consolidate his legitimacy to be prime minister,” says a diplomat.
In the battle, Tshisekedi will be able to count on the goodwill of several foreign powers, who believe that the president would be able to ensure stability and certain control over institutions if he was voted in for a second term.
In May 2022, the dismissal of Dieudonné Kaluba Dibwa, president of the Constitutional Court, in favour of Dieudonné Kamuleta Badibanga, who is reputed to be close to the head of state, caused controversy. Many saw this as the president’s desire to strengthen his hold on this key body in the electoral process, as the court validates candidacies and results before proclaiming them definitively. According to some sources, the Court’s decision of incompetence in Ponyo’s case annoyed people in high places.
A few months earlier, in October 2021, Kadima’s appointment as head of the Commission Electorale Nationale Independante (Ceni) had provoked strong tensions and led to critical voices uniting.
Supporters of Fayulu and Kabila, as well as Catholics of the Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (Cenco) and Protestants of the Eglise du Christ au Congo (ECC) had united to denounce the “pressures and threats” that had led to this choice and demand a more independent Ceni.
An anti-Tshisekedi front?
Then gathered in a Patriotic Bloc, they nevertheless avoided showing that they were together in this struggle, opting to march separately during the demonstrations.
“There is still a lot of rancour between the different camps. Martin Fayulu has not come to terms with his 2018 defeat, Matata Ponyo is still angry at Kabila for not having nominated him as a candidate, some people close to Kabila still recall Moïse’s ‘treachery’, Fayulu and Muzito are angry… Yet they only have a chance of winning if they unite,” said the diplomat.
A new “Geneva” – the agreement that led to Fayulu’s designation as the common opposition candidate (before Tshisekedi and Kamerhe backed out) – seems unlikely.
However, the handshake between Katumbi and Kabila at the Katangese reconciliation forum last May was not lost on anyone. Eight years after their breakup, could the enemies reconcile?
“No alliance has been formed for the moment, but if the former president asks us to, we would agree to work with Katumbi,” says one of the members of the crisis committee of the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC).
“I am not sure that such an alliance would put us in the shade,” said the UDPS leader, who believes that “Moïse would lose a lot of credibility.”
He continued: “At the moment, no competitor or alliance scares us too much. The presidential election should go well, we are mainly focused on the legislative and provincial elections, which will be more perilous.”
It is reassuring that a few months before the deadline, he is putting the situation into perspective: “We are in politics and, between now and the election, a thousand things can still happen!”
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